Portland Mayor Kate Snyder and 14 former mayors say the Charter Commission’s proposal to change the powers of top city officials would politicize management of the city and give an executive mayor too much power.

The mayors say they feel compelled to speak out against what they say would be a “revolutionary change” to the city’s current structure of government and that recent changes to the proposal are nothing more than an attempt to make the proposal more defensible and sell it to the public.

The commission’s proposal for an executive mayor gives more authority to the city’s elected mayor and scales back the power of the appointed city manager, who would be called the chief operating officer.

“Politicizing the management of our city is dangerous. A single individual with all the power to advance a singular political agenda does not lead to sound democratic government,” the mayors said in a statement. “It creates a propensity for special interests to directly influence the mayor, removing the power from the people to a single person – disenfranchising those who do not have the political capital within Portland politics to influence policy.”

The statement in response to amendments the commission made last week to its proposal was signed by Snyder and former mayors Jill Duson, Michael Brennan, Tom Allen, Nick Mavodones, Ed Suslovic, Jim Cohen, Karen Geraghty, George Campbell, Jack Dawson, Anne Pringle, Jim Cloutier, David Brenerman, Cheryl Leeman and Pam Plumb.

Brennan is the only former mayor in the group who was elected by city residents. The others were named mayor by their colleagues on the city council prior to the change to a popularly elected mayor in 2010.



In April, Snyder and 15 former mayors came out in opposition to the commission’s initial proposal to shift more power to future elected mayors and warned that such a change could result in a less inclusive form of city government.

Cheryl Leeman, center, speaks among seven other former Portland mayors at City Hall in April to oppose a proposal by the Charter Commission to grant more power of the city’s mayor. From left: Jack Dawson, Anne Pringle, Jim Cloutier, Nick Mavadones, Leeman, Tom Allen, Pam Plumb and Jill Duson. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Former Mayor Nathan Smith signed the April statement but not the new one. The other former mayors said they could not reach Smith to ask him to sign the new letter.

Michael Kebede, the commission’s chair, said the analysis by the mayors fails to acknowledge how much power the most powerful person in the city – the city manager – currently has and how that position is not accountable to voters. Right now, he said, the city pays a full-time salary for a mayor who is essentially a council chair.

“I think the people of Portland aren’t getting their money’s worth from the way the current system allocates power,” Kebede said. “Who could possibly argue against the city’s most powerful person being popularly elected?”

Last week, the Charter Commission voted 8-1 in support of amendments to the leadership proposal from Commissioner Robert O’Brien that would completely detach the mayor from the city council, eliminating the mayor’s ability to preside over meetings and set agendas, and would allow the council to remove the mayor for cause by a three-fourths majority vote.



The amended version of the proposal also does away with the creation of an executive committee, comprised of the mayor and two councilors, to nominate top city officials. It retains the commission’s original proposal to make the mayor chief executive of the city while replacing the city manager with a chief operating officer with less authority than the city manager now has. The chief operating officer would still oversee departments and department heads, but would report to the mayor rather than the council.

Currently, the appointed city manager oversees development of the budget and capital improvement plan and presents them to the council. Under the commission’s plan, the mayor would take on those tasks.

The mayor would have the power to veto council actions on ordinances and policies, but the council could override a veto with the support of two-thirds of its members.

During last week’s meeting, Kebede cited a previous letter from former mayors outlining their concerns about the executive mayor proposal and said he believed the most recent changes addressed that concern. He called the amended proposal “a much easier sell to defend and to sell to voters.”

But the mayors, in their statement, said the amendments are not substantive changes. They say the proposal could leave Portland in the “risky position” of getting an extreme person as mayor and being stuck with that person until the next election.


“Although touted as more democratic, more transparent and more accountable, the executive mayor is really about power. How is concentrating power with one person more democratic and how does it provide more transparency and more accountability? We believe that concentrating political power in the mayor will lead to more intense political conflict, a weaker city council, the departure of talented professional city staff and higher taxes,” the mayors said.


Kebede said Wednesday that under the proposed changes, the city’s day-to-day operations would be managed by a chief operating office with experience, while the mayor would take the lead on policy. That system has worked well in places like Westbrook; Burlington, Vermont; and Manchester, New Hampshire, he said.

“The current system does not work well, and that’s part of the reason no mayor elected under it has won re-election,” Kebede said. “I think the blame for that should be placed at the feet of the structure we have.”

Kebede believes the commission’s proposed reforms “will make Portland more democratic, more inclusive and will help Portland solve its problems in a way the current system is less well-equipped to do.” The city faces a number of issues, he said, including gentrifying economics, an ongoing influx of refugees and asylum seekers, and a growing problem with homelessness.

“These are the types of issues mayors run on,” he said. “It’s very important that, once elected, they have the tools to do something about them.”

The commission has been meeting for months to review the city’s charter and recommend changes, which must be presented to the City Council in a final report by July 11.

To be enacted, its proposals would then have to be approved by voters, and part of the commission’s work in the next few weeks will be deciding how those proposals will appear on the Nov. 8 ballot. The commission is bringing forward more than a dozen proposed changes and has the option to send them to voters in groups or as one collective package.

Related Headlines

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.